When All Good Quests Must Come to an End
And the finale was a satisfying close to a suspenseful and dazzlingly violent Fox series that may have gone on too long but never stopped trying to outdo its own best moments. The plot of “24” was thicker this season than in the past, and the return of the deliciously weaselly ex-president Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) also helped. The last few episodes pulled out all the stops. No more dithering over the ethics of torture and vigilante justice, just lots of it, including Jack disemboweling a Russian hit man to avenge his murdered lover — and to retrieve a swallowed SIM card encoded with crucial evidence.
Perhaps because a movie version is under consideration, Jack didn’t die in the end; he went off the grid having felled another corroded presidency and saved the nation from nuclear attack.
And “24” won’t die either — the series lives on as a time capsule of the post-9/11 era. The show was famous for its real-time conceit that each episode cover one hour in an uninterrupted 24-hour period, the minutes marked by a ticking clock. It may be better remembered for its real-life conceit, being a counterterrorism drama that went on the air two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and lasted long enough to play off of two presidencies and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The series stretched credulity and also the limits of the espionage genre. Without ever abandoning its core entertainment values, “24” was one of the few dramas that grappled at length — if at times cartoonishly — with some of the most divisive issues of the times, from the ethics of torture to the role of civil liberties in wartime.
And it was taken seriously — and often cited — by hawks in the Bush administration as well as by liberal opponents of the Iraq war. The show popped up in law school lectures and Internet parodies. Its split-screen device was widely imitated, including by Keep America Safe, an organization founded by Liz Cheney and others, which copied the show’s trademark graphics to punch up an ad attacking the Obama administration’s response to last year’s Christmas Day bombing attempt.
Other series that tried to imitate the success — and gravity — of “24” didn’t last as long. “Sleeper Cell,” on Showtime, had only two seasons, and “The Unit,” on CBS, was canceled after four as viewers moved on to more irreverent spy shows like “Chuck” and “Burn Notice.” (The ABC drama “Alias,” which began shortly before “24,” lasted five seasons, possibly because it saw which way viewers were leaning and grew increasingly frivolous.)
“24,” which had to stretch treachery and malfeasance over a 24-episode arc each season, grew ever more outlandish, including one subplot in Season 7 that had African frogmen staging an underwater attack on the White House. In almost every White House there was a high-level West Wing conspiracy; behind almost every cabal of Islamic extremists there was a shadowy group of powerful Western businessmen intent on destroying peace to preserve their own prosperity. But no matter how ludicrous the plot twists, the series kept a straight face.
The last season was, if anything, more plausibly preposterous than the preceding few. It began with a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists set on torpedoing a treaty to disarm the nuclear capabilities of Kamistan, an Iran-like nation in the Middle East led by a moderate leader, Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor).
Naturally, there had to be more, and this season, the writers gave the Russians the black hat, positing that Moscow was so threatened by the peace agreement that it helped terrorists acquire nuclear weapons and also helped them assassinate President Hassan. That may seem a bit far-fetched in the post-cold-war era. Then again, Britain has not yet been able to extradite the former K.G.B. agent whom officials suspect of using radiation poisoning to kill Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former spy who turned on his masters. (The prime suspect was elected to the Duma and so gained parliamentary immunity.)
And it isn’t ahistorical for American presidents to choose expediency over principle. It was fun to watch President Allison Taylor lose her rectitude and moral compass in a desperate attempt to keep the peace treaty going, particularly since she was coaxed and cajoled by her slippery predecessor, President Logan. “24” was rarely very imaginative when it came to character development, but Mr. Itzin infused the role with Nixonian guile and reptilian gusto.
Only Jack Bauer — with the help of his faithful Counter-Terrorism Unit colleague Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) — could save the country from a sinister collusion between the White House and the Kremlin. Jack had motives of his own, of course, namely avenging the murder of Renee Walker, the comely F.B.I. agent shot by a Russian sniper moments after she and Jack had sex at his apartment.
Jack expressed no regrets about turning into a vigilante.
“I would have accepted justice by law, but that was taken away from me by people like you,” Jack told a corrupt F.B.I. official while holding him at gunpoint. “So you’re right, I am judge and jury.”
“24” was an action-adventure fantasy filtered through realpolitik, mixing real and present dangers into a plot so convoluted and outlandish that viewers never felt too far from popcorn escapism.
After eight seasons, it was high time for Jack Bauer to go away. But the series ended in just the right way — leaving viewers wanting just a little bit more.